When Do You Actually Need to Send Your Food Back?

First things first: Be nice about it.

When Do You Actually Need to Send Your Food Back?

I recently came upon a hair in my entree at a restaurant, but I didn’t send back the meal.

At least it wasn’t curly, I reasoned. Plus, it could’ve been mine; I am, if nothing else, a hairy beast. The follicle in question, however, had an amber hue, suggesting it was indeed an interloper.

I generally tend to take a “don’t rock the boat” approach when interacting with the service sector, and it horrifies me when dinner companions and family members do otherwise. I was a bartender in New York City back in the early aughts and had one too many lippy would-be sommeliers send back a glass of $6 Cabernet for “not being meaty enough.” In such cases, I’d refill the glass with the exact same bottle of shitty house cab and send out another on the house.

I’ve also seen too many movies with waiters doing some variation of this:

Or this:

Yet I concede there are occasional circumstances that warrant asking the kitchen for a redo. So I called Daniel Post Senning, Emily Post’s great-great grandson and current torchbearer for the family business, for some best practices on sending food back. Here’s what I learned…

Broadly speaking, you’re totally allowed to send food back. Senning explains that you’re never expected to eat anything that’s unsafe (e.g., something that’s undercooked). The same goes for anything that grosses you out, or if you find a foreign object in your food (e.g., glass, gravel, rocks, metal, jewelry, wood, plastic, cigarettes, gum, feces, hair, blood, human fingers, fingernails, insects, rodents, bones and other animal parts). “For some people, a hair in their food isn’t going to cross that threshold. They think, This stuff happens,” he explains. “But I do think hair qualifies. It’s why employees in kitchens are required to wear hair nets. Bottom line: If you notice something on your plate that grosses you out, it’s entirely appropriate to send it back.”

That doesn’t mean you get to be a dick about it. The bigger question in Senning’s view isn’t the if but the how. “[The Post] philosophy is two rudes don’t make a right,” he says, adding that the intent should never be to embarrass or scold the establishment. “I like to be circumspect rather than accusatory in my choice of language. Accidents happen. Mistakes will be made. How you handle them says as much about you as how you handle your successes. Get your server’s attention, acknowledge that something isn’t right and tell them you’d like a fresh plate of food.”

Or that you get to still send it back if you’ve eaten half of the dish. If the issue is a matter of preference, Senning says there’s definitely a point at which you shouldn’t be requesting an entirely new plate of food. “If you claim an entree is inedible because it’s undercooked yet have eaten the majority of it, you’re hurting your argument. On the other hand, if at any point it becomes inedible to you — you didn’t notice that fingernail until you got to that point of the meal, for example — I don’t think most restaurants will expect you to keep eating.”

“Ideally,” he continues, “it’ll work out for everybody: The waiter is going to be happy to do it if you’re not announcing it to the whole restaurant or scold them in the process. Restaurants want happy customers. If you’re not being rude in how you raise the issue, most places will be happy to get you a meal that you’re going to enjoy.”

That’s all well and good, as long as servers are equally diligent in adhering to etiquette with regard to rubbing their ass cheeks on my French toast and adding a “thin spread of fromunda cheese” to my garlic bread.